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Podcast Interview: Cat Solen (Adult Swim's The Shivering Truth)

On The AFA Podcast this time Elvie Mae Parian got the chance to chat with Cat Solen, director and producer on The Shivering Truth, the second season of which arrives this May on Adult Swim.

They discuss the new series of the horror stop-motion series, as well as Cat's wider career and influences and what it's like working with the series's creator (and sole writer) Vernon Chatman. It's a fascinating conversation and we think you'll enjoy it!

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Hosted by

• Elvie Mae Parian @lvmaeparian


Elvie Mae Parian: My name is Elvie Mae Parian. In addition to being an animator myself by day, I am a contributor to Animation for Adults, a site dedicated to delivering news, reviews, and all sorts of things all animation and other related media. You know, not exclusive to “animation for adults”, per se, but whatever is animated and related for anyone who is interested in that sort of stuff. 

I will be talking today with Cat Solen, director and producer of The Shivering Truth. In which its second season will be soon set to debut May 10 on Adult Swim.

Thank you so much for being here with me, for spending your time here talking with me.

So I guess to jump right into things… just...

Cat Solen: Okay!

E:…tell me about yourself! How did you get involved with a really strange, you know, twisted series like this? (laughs)

C: (Laughs)

E: If we were even to go back a little further in your career, and even earlier if you want to go deeper into that.

C: Yeah!

E: How did you get here? That is essentially the question.

The Shivering Truth Season 2

C: Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s nice to talk to you, too. I would say that… uh, you know, it’s funny. I like the way that you asked that question because I’ve been answering a lot of questions like that. Except, there’s something you said in it that really made me realize something I hadn’t said in other interviews and it’s that… I love animation. And I grew up loving animation. I also grew up wanting to make animated films really badly, but I also wanted to make live-action films. And I still do want to make live-action films. And TV shows, and things like that. 

And I sort of approached my animated work with a very, kind of, live-action approach? I try to tell stories that you often more normally see in live-action than animation. And I even also… down to how I shoot the puppets. Try to shoot more like a live-action movie than you would see in a traditional, stop motion animated movie.

I… I’m a huge fan of animation! Mostly from the technical side of things. When it comes to my favorite animated films, it’s usually stuff that technically impressed me.

So one of my very, very favorite films that I saw as a really young kid— I rented it every weekend from the video store—was The Wizard of Speed and Time by Mike Jittlov. And I don’t know if you are aware of that movie. It’s hard to find now and I think it’s on Youtube? But I don’t know if it’s on Youtube in its entirety. But it’s about making the movie that you are watching. And it’s actually a live-action movie, but it involves a lot of stop motion and a lot of pixelation and practical [visual] effects.

I saw that movie as such a young kid, and it just made me want to make movies so badly! And then as I got older, I watched it again—like in my early 30s— and then I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is actually a movie about how hard it is to make movies!” (laughs)

E:  (Laughs) 

C: And I thought it was like, you know, a positive and exciting movie! But it’s actually really sardonic and twisted and dark. And I was like, “Okay, I get it!” So that’s ...I think I come from that you know, and also watching things as a kid and being afraid of them. Or not knowing how they were done and wanting to understand how they were done, but not exactly having the real sort of information that was...

Like I didn’t know how to find any background information on how movies were made. So I would stumble upon things, but I would look at the things I have stumbled upon. For example, I brought this up before… Like those packages of cards that came with bubblegum. And there was a whole series of them made for Ghostbusters and also made for Batman. And those out of all the packages had four cards of behind-the-scenes photos. And if I could get those, I would stare at those little cards and obsess over all the little things that I can see that would teach me something about how to make my own movies some day.

And then from that, I just made it up! (laughs)

And so, it was like combining things or watching like… Every now and then there would be these really cool specials on The Disney Channel that were like, about how animation was made. Those I would watch too and get really obsessive about. But I feel like there is something about animation that shows you... in the final product there is residue of what it felt like to make that product. And I felt like that residue has a very big, emotional impact on the audience that people don’t even realize that they’re getting. And I try to bring that in everything I do.

E: I feel like, you know, if we were to all dig deep into the back of our minds of stuff we maybe even forgotten in our childhood and if we got that same question of like, “Oh! Why are you doing the thing you do now?” or, “Why do you like the thing you do now?”, it kinda explained that pretty perfectly. There’s always that sort of thing, like at the back of our minds, that is very specific but also very specifically weird. That kind of taps into that train of thought, right? And we use that as inspiration. (laughs)

C: Yeah! I always would draw and stuff and make things. And I think, it was to me that I always saw it as the next step. [Which] is to make things on a larger scale. I don’t know! (laughs)

E: Yeah! Sounds great. Yeah. So for a series like this specifically, The Shivering Truth, what were some of the decisions that led to finalizing the overall style and production of a show like this? You know—with everyone else involved with this, Vernon Chatman—was there discussion over, “Yeah, this show should be animation.”? 

C: Right.

E: Or like… versus [Vernon’s] other work-something like Wonder Showzen, where it’s a lot of live-action. And he himself has described the influence, or the show being, not necessarily from animation itself. Like even from some of the stuff you described, your influences. In an interview with Animation Magazine, he mentioned things like Jim Henson and Terry Gilliam—those per se, are not animation-specific. 

Why is The Shivering Truth animated? What makes that specific?

C: Yeah.

E: Why is that the style of the show?

C: We met many years ago and we wanted to work together. And I wanted to work on what I see as a Vernon Chatman-project, which is really an overall tone and an overall feeling that isn’t necessarily a medium. Like he kinda jumps around. He does CG, he does live-action. And I think for him, it was similar with me. Where he wanted to work on something that I would do. And I’ve always also jumped around and I do a lot of live-action.

But something that is always in my work is stuff that is very specifically and heavily art directed. I think the most extreme of the kind of things that can be heavily and specifically art directed is stop motion. Because you not only are designing every inch of the world like you are with all animation but then you are also then completely building the world in miniature. And then shooting it again.

And so maintaining your vision through every step of the stop motion process is hard, but it also allows you to have room to make kinda whatever you want out of the world. And so our idea was to have … We kinda talked about the movies and shows we wanted to make. After Vernon wrote the scripts, he said, “I want it to be stop motion”. And I said, “Well! Okay. Good! We can do that. We’ll make it stop motion!”, and we found it to be perfect because the scripts are so insane and go to insane places.

must be my magnetic personality

I think you can only do that only with a medium that both is accessible to that, like allows for that, but also a medium that… you’re really pushing the medium when you do it. And we wanted to make the most stop motion show you can possibly make. Like we want to push medium to its nth degree just like we’re pushing everything else on the show.

Like all of the themes are pushed, too. What’s the craziest places we could possibly go [to]? Or what’s the most emotional places we could go [to]? We also do that with the physical form. And also, we like that! We like that you can see the edges of the stop motion. You can see where the medium is able to handle it and where it’s not. The greatest thing is taking a script that sounds absolutely impossible to make and having to figure out how to make it.

And that’s another big thing for Vernon and I to get across when we’re making the show. And it takes a lot of time and a lot of very serious conversation in the design process because we have to make sure the world completely makes sense every time you establish it. We have to build a world that the audience can trust before we can break it down and mess it up.

That’s the hardest thing I think about the show is making sure we are making sense all the time so that we can have all these crazy things that happen and that they will still have an emotional impact that is really important to us. And a comedic impact. (laughs)

E: Yeah. Yeah! There’s a lot of subversion of something that seems, “Oh God this is gonna go in a really strange direction…” but it doesn’t?


C: (laughs)

E: Or rather, it does still go in a strange direction but it’s not quite the conclusion you expected out of like, a skit.

C: Right!

E: Yeah, and on that: the series [is] essentially an anthology, right?

C: Yes.

E: It has many different stories… where are a lot of these stories, and you know, ideas coming from? Are a lot of them coming from a personal place? Are a lot of them just kind of scattered across the minds of the different writers involved etcetera, like from you or—anyone else? Like where are they coming from? 

C: Well, they’re all coming from Vernon.
E: Mm-hm.

C: He’s the only writer on the show. And it’s hard to believe because it’s so crazy!

E: Right!

C: It’s so crazy. It’s so…

E: There’s so much!

C: It’s so dense, yeah. He… he’s like a… (laughs) I don’t know if he would like this description but, he’s very poetic in the way he works and works very conceptual in the way he works!

I think he has in mind a theme that he wants to get at. Or he starts with a character that is related to an overall theme. And then he tries to see where he can push that theme to within this world and what else it can kind of snowball into.

Then when we get together and we start boarding the scripts—very early on, Vernon and I, just the two of us—and we spend a lot of time before we even start production just talking through the scripts, really detailed and making sure that we see the same world together working on this show. And also, we add to the craziness. We build it out. We expand it into a real place so that… we either add jokes, add props—we add whatever we want! We get it where it needs to be to make sense to the audience before we even bring on any other crew.

The job after that is pretty much me explaining it to everybody else, over and over and over [...] until we are done with production. But also, every single day, I call Vernon [and] I’ll have like ten more questions he and I never thought of that we have to figure out together or he just sometimes he immediately has the answer. I love working with writers. And with Vernon, it’s like, I never worked with anyone where it’s more gratifying and it’s also more challenging and it’s really fun! That collaboration is really great and I love it.

My goal always with working with writers is to try to show what’s inside their head and that’s why I love working with writers. And with Vernon, it’s like, I never worked with anyone where it’s more gratifying and it’s also more challenging at the same time in a way that excites me and makes me feel good about making the projects.

E: To talk about the upcoming season of the show, what are some of the things that this new season is hoping to accomplish next that—beyond, you know, what the first season has already done. Or rather, what is it hoping to keep consistent? Is it going to keep pushing the envelope in terms of what can be done, etcetera? What can you say about the upcoming season—without going into too much detail if you can’t—to avoid spoiling anything, right?

C: No problem. It’s very much within our nature as a show to always be pushing this into another place and to always be doing something we haven’t done before yet. We definitely didn’t want to repeat any themes from last season, we really wanted to open it up and have it be new. Something the show will always be is sad and emotional and also very funny. And dark. That will always exist but almost everything else can change. And I love that about it.

This season we were so lucky to be able to work with our crew to bring out… We expanded the world a little bit more, and I’m not gonna get into specifics on exactly how we did that but, there are things you can see in this season that—to me last season, in the first season, because it was the first season—I felt like it would be impossible to do these things in this show. I didn’t know we could ever do these things in this show and we go to do a lot of that stuff. And we have a lot of really cool characters in this show that I love a lot and a lot of the performance in this season. And a lot of the performance, I think, is very strong in this season—the animation.

Our animators on every single second of this show we have made, I have had the most insanely incredible, amazing animators I ever could work with. I feel so grateful to them. I could never do what they do as well as they do it, there’s no way!

I really tried very hard this season to make sure that I was able to have time and really give the animators anything they needed as far as helping them understand the world that they’re trying to get a character out of and making them feel like they’re connected to the character [and] that they understand who the character is. And I do think you can see that in the animation this season, in a way that makes me really proud.

Last season, to me, it was kinda a little more storybook-y, whereas this season feels a little bit more character-driven in a way that I really like.

Oh! Also this season... Last season we had one demon and he made like a cameo kind of, he wasn’t as present. This season we have three to four demons.

who stole my racecar bed?

E: (gasps)

C: Four demons.
E: Oh, more demons. (laughs)

C: Yeah! That was fun too! Designing demons is always fun.
E: The promise of more demons, awesome!

C: I’m a big Lynda Barry fan, so any time I can draw a demon, draw a monster, I’m there.(laughs)

E: Looking forward, really!

C: Yeah…

E: So this next question is kind of a big one, it’s kinda our big last one. So...I’m gonna read this verbatim.

C: Okay!

E: Horror appears to be having a moment for the past of couple of years. We're seeing some very, artistic explorations of the horror genre in film through works like Midsommar, The Lighthouse, a lot of Jordan Peele's recent work, his involvement in projects—who himself lent some of his voice talent in the first season, right?
C: Yes!

E: I think it's also worth mentioning that Stranger Things has some sort of mainstream impact on pop culture when it comes to approaching horror in a way, or least the interest in nostalgia because we also had the recent It remakes, right?

C: Yeah!

E: And there also has been this resurged interest in Lovecraftian-type literature, even more apparent in video games and whatnot and tabletop games. So, why, in your opinion, do you think this is the case? Why do you think that the horror genre is kind of having a moment right now? 

C: Yeah! Right now. I think right now it’s having a moment because… [well] it’s always appealed to me because it’s a genre that you can play in it. It’s a genre that has enough of a history that you can bend it and twist it and mess with it and still get an audience to watch the thing because it has the promise of horror in the first place.

And I think people like it because I think it’s a way to tell a bigger story, like a very broad, high-concept story through a more intimate lens. So you can tell life-and-death stories, you can tell sad stories through extreme circumstances, through a smaller scope and that is kinda why I love it. You’re able to be more subjective, more poetic, but also get across emotional themes that would be harder to explain if you’re just telling a straight drama or straight comedy.

I’ve said this before, I think that both finding things that are scary and finding things that are funny...to find both of those things you have to sort of let yourself go a little bit. And for me, something that I have trouble with when I’m stuck and unable to figure out an idea or concept, I have to ask myself like, “What’s freaking you out so much? What’s scaring you? What is the thing that you are imagining that would be like, the worst version of this?” And sometimes when you think of the worst version of whatever outcome, whether it’s anything, whether it’s an idea you’re trying to come up with, whether it’s a product you’re trying to make, whether it’s a conversation that you need to have—like a hard conversation that you need to have with somebody—when you think to yourself, “Why is this so hard?” and “What am I afraid of?”, it opens you up a little bit and lets you kind of examine that subject and that thing, that topic from an angle that you never thought of before.

I think there’s a vulnerability there that comes through in the final thing and in horror I think that there is...people love to know that other people are scared just like they are and feeling things that they’re feeling and that in a way, helps people project and connect more with the subject and the characters because they feel like that thing can leave or be lost. So they want to know it more intimately, I think.

For me, one of the things I love most about Shivering is it’s stop motion and its animation but it’s sad and it’s dark and it’s not super cute and not super whimsical. And I never wanted to make cute or whimsical things. Which I guess I...end up in horror! (laughs)

E: So would you say it’s like, a greater...collective empathy thing? Like if you see this thing… like The Shivering Truth in a way, some people described it as like, “Wow, this is a great representation of the very strange nightmares one has.”

C: Yeah!

E: It manages to convey [it] in such a way that makes sense, but also it doesn’t make sense. It’s like an oxymoron, right? So you’re saying basically it’s like a greater empathy thing. Like I see this thing, and I feel a certain way, but I know other people are also feeling this emotion.

C: Yes.

E: Whether it’s a negative feeling or some sort of comfort.

C: Yes! I think it’s a universal empathy. But I also think what you’re talking about is like...Vernon and I are huge surrealism fans and we’re big fans of like, using subjectivity to kind of get feelings across. And I would say… a nightmare scenario...like dream logic, is also surrealism.

And it’s like, built-in surrealism that’s in our consciousness that we can’t avoid. I love that, I love trying to touch on that and try to show that. I love trying to show something that you only ever picture on your own by yourself. You know?

E: Yeah.

C: “Is this how everybody would picture this thing?” Probably not! But I like putting something out there and seeing how they would think! (laughs)

E: Well that was all great! Yeah. Thank you so much for taking this time to talk with me! All of your responses were wonderful, all very insightful—I learned so much!

C: Thank you!

E: Do you have anything else you want to say?

C: I just love what you guys are doing. I love Animation For Adults. I think you guys are so awesome.This is my wheelhouse, this is what I love to do. I said I do live-action too, but I want to make animation for adults for the rest of my life. (laughs) So I’m honored to talk to you, so thank you so much! I really appreciate it.

E: Thank you, thank you so much!

Elvie Mae Parian is an animator who also likes to spend her spare time through writing and criticism. You can follow her on Twitter and see her own art on Instagram.

The Shivering Truth Season 2 airs Sundays at Midnight on Adult Swim in the US from May 10 and is available on Adultswim.com for a limited time. Season 1 is available on All4 in the UK.